An independent report released on September 1 detailing the long-term sexual abuse that went on at St. George’s School, an elite boarding school in Rhode Island, shed light on the policies that fostered an environment where faculty and staff took repeated advantage of students.
The report, commissioned by St. George’s and an organization called SGS for Healing and conducted by an outside law firm, found that six employees abused at least 51 students, and that students sexually bullied or hazed 10 others.
Among its findings, the report determined the rules and standards in place at the school — which “paved the way for abuse of students” — were common among most boarding schools during the 1970s and 80s, and the school’s leaders “did little, and certainly not enough” to remedy the situation, according to the report.
For instance, the school allowed faculty to take students on overnight and weekend trips at the school’s expense, and dorm parents – adult advisers who live in student dorms – often let older students supervise dorms in their absence. These practices were, according to the report, not unique to St. George’s, and l eaders at the school were not found to have “acted differently than the leaders of many other boarding schools in New England or elsewhere in the United States.”
While the nearly 400-page report paints a disturbing picture of the “private hell” many students experienced, it also investigates how a scandal of this scope could have happened in the first place.
“…[T]he most relevant question is whether school leaders took the steps necessary to prevent, to the extent possible, teachers or staff from molesting students, or to prevent older students from sexually assaulting younger students,” the report reads.
Despite its overall inaction, the school took some steps to address the abuse, according to the report. It fired three employees: Howard White, the associate chaplain; Al Gibbs, the athletic trainer; and Franklin Coleman, the choirmaster and music teacher. A fourth employee and English teacher, William Lydgate, was “likely fired” for the same reason, according to the report.
St. George’s, however, continued to support Gibbs and Coleman after their departures. St. George’s found that Gibbs was abusing girls, taking naked photographs of them, and circulating those pictures among male students, and at least 31 girls made firsthand reports of abuse at Gibbs’ hands, according to the report.
Despite being aware of Gibbs’ misconduct, however, the school continued to award him a $1,200 annual grant for “distinguished service,” a grant he received until his death in 1996.
The school’s Dean of Faculty also continued to recommend Coleman for other teaching positions. Coleman joined St. Georges’ during the 1980-1981 academic year and worked there until May 1988. He “sexually abused at least one student in each year of his tenure at the school,” according to the report.
“But we believe there is no credible justification for the actions the school took to help Coleman and Gibbs after the school fired them,” the report reads.
The revelation of such widespread abuse at the school prompted investigators to question why officials ignored the reports and why these issues were not brought to light earlier. The tendency of administrations to look the other way is not unheard of though.
“Often, in these environments, it’s common to have victims report the crime and not be taken seriously, or be silenced by the administration and have their reports buried,” Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told Business Insider.
“What we’ve seen historically is that whenever there’s a closed system, whether it’s the military, or in this case, a school, there’s a strong hierarchy and a sense of secrecy and authority,” Poore said. “The need for the organization to protect its own reputation can trump the well-being of the victim.”
Soon after the report’s release, St. George Headmaster Eric Peterson announced that would not renew his contract, set to expire in June 2017, and essentially step down from his role.
Despite the school’s previous mistakes, the investigation itself was thoroughly handled, according to Anne Scott, whose account of being raped repeatedly as a sophomore by Gibbs in the 1970s was the key to bringing about the investigation.
“It was very well done, in terms of how the investigation was conducted and the final report itself,” Scott told Business Insider.
“I am happy with the steps the school has taken, especially the fact that they’re going to remove Mr. Zane’s name from the girls’ dormitory, which was very important to the Gibbs survivors,” she continued.
Scott was referring to Anthony Zane, headmaster of the school during her years at St. George’s. Saying Zane represented a “massive failure” in child protection when he was headmaster, Scott cited his seemingly lenient behavior toward Gibbs, as well as his alleged dismissiveness toward another victim, Katie Wales.
Although Zane was aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Gibbs, he signed off on a recommendation letter for him and approved a stipend Gibbs received annually until his death, according to the report.
“When Katie Wales went to Zane, she was not believed and not treated well at all,” Scott said.
Zane “has said it was he who approached Wales, after a senior boy happened to catch Gibbs photographing a naked girl with a towel over her face and reported him, and said that he never called Wales crazy,” according to Vanity Fair.
Zane did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Since the report’s release, St. George’s also noted it’s taken action to improve the school’s culture. A representative for St. George’s pointed Business Insider to a letter sent to the St. George’s community on September 1 by Leslie Heaney, Chair of the Board of Trustees. Heaney highlighted several steps the school would implement in light of the report’s findings.
First, she announced that St. George’s would retain “David Wolowitz, an attorney who specializes in this area, to review the school’s reporting procedures and policies and to conduct additional boundary training of faculty and staff.”
The letter points out that a training session occurred in June.
St. George’s would also conduct more extensive and ongoing background checks of employees and volunteer staff and create a “Community Response Team” to handle allegations of sexual abuse in partnership with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.
“It’s a very good idea and an effective tool for schools to partner with local rape crisis centers to better address sexual violence on campus,” Poore said. “Along with that, they should also find ways to improve the conversation itself around sexual assault.”
While Scott expressed relief the school has address the issue, she said “there is always more to be done, and that applies to how schools make it a habit to be ever vigilant …. This isn’t something that just happened decades ago; it happens today. And schools, including St. George’s, need to be vigilant in keeping children safe.”
When asked about steps that can be taken on a larger scale, Scott stressed the need for legislative reform in addressing sexual violence.
“We need mechanisms to regulate private schools, we need to reform reporting laws, and we need to put forward a legislative and regulatory reform agenda,” she said, underscoring the flaws in current Rhode Island law, particularly on the civil side.”